Tom Perriello, candidate for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, touted the value of community colleges as a path to the middle class during a stop in Roanoke Friday on a tour of Southwest Virginia.

“One of the best pathways at this point into the middle class is through nursing and some of the other programs that are so well done here,” Perriello said after being shown around the Fralin Center for Science and Health Professions at Virginia Western Community College.

As governor, Perriello said, he would push to make two years of community college or career and technical training free for Virginians. He said he thinks the idea could draw bipartisan support because the community college system is popular across party lines and getting people into the workforce and paying taxes has appeal for conservatives. He didn’t offer any details on how such a program would be paid for.

Perriello, a one-term former congressman in the 5th District, entered the race in early January to challenge Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who seemed to have the inside track on the Democratic nomination to be decided in a June 13 primary election.

In multiple recent polls, he’s already neck and neck with Northam, albeit with most voters still undecided.

“It’s really early for polls, but it’s always better to be doing better in the polls,” Perriello said Friday.

Perriello toured the Fralin Center and heard about programs offered there before taking a range of questions from reporters.

Asked about what specifically can be done to lift the fortunes of the coalfields counties in far Southwest Virginia, which he will visit Saturday, Perriello said those in government first need to listen.

He proposed undoing the consolidation of economic strength in places away from small towns and rural areas, and finding a public education funding formula that takes better care of places like the coalfields.

In response to other questions, Perriello again apologized for his “dumb and inappropriate” comparison of President Donald Trump’s election and 9/11 terrorist attacks and argued that despite his challenge to Northam, Virginia Democrats are more united than at any point in his lifetime.

“I think Virginians overwhelmingly want to make sure that we do remain a firewall against Trump and the kind of hateful politics he’s brought in,” he said. “But it’s also about a positive vision of inclusive economic growth across the state.”

Both can be done, he argued. “I know Virginia is capable of walking and chewing gum.”

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Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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